This poem is dedicated to Jane, who asked me write about being incarcerated.
I didn’t want to write this poem.
Even as I stand here right now, performing this piece, exactly like you asked me to,
I feel uncomfortable.
I don’t like to tell other people’s stories.
I don’t want to appropriate someone else’s struggle and pretend that it is my own,
And I don’t want to receive accolades for appearing enlightened when I’m just as in the dark as everyone else.
When you begged me to write a poem about you being incarcerated, I immediately told you to write your own poem because your words would mean so much more than my own,
But you refused.
You said, “No one will listen to me and besides, I’ll be dead in a year, anyway.”
How do I tell them the story of your life? How do I get them to remember you like I will always remember you?
They will never see the deep lines around your eyes and mouth. They will never smell the cigarettes you couldn’t stop chain-smoking, or see the yellow nicotine stains on your fingertips. They will never hear your throaty laugh, see your long, shiny black hair, or see the incredible beadwork that you meticulously created and showed me with such shy pride.
You are more than a statistic – you are an actual person, with hopes and dreams, and a self-deprecating sense of humour. You are more than your illness, more than your addiction, more than your crimes.
You were abused as a child. You are burdened by mental illness and poverty. You are homeless. You have children that were apprehended by Family and Children’s Services. You are racialized. You are alone.
Crack, heroin, alcohol – your “drugs of choice”…these are your coping mechanisms. Sex work is how you get them. You’re not Julia Roberts being lavished with attention by Richard Gere. How many snowy streets have you strolled hoping for strange men to pick you up in their cars, just so that they could use your body and you could get some crumpled bills?
You told me that your best friend, who was also a sex worker, was murdered and her body parts were scattered across the city in dumpsters. You believe that it is only a matter of time before you are next.
Sometimes, when the sky stretches wide and blue above me,
I think about prison and what it must have been like for you there.
You would miss the sky, you told me. You missed weather and starlight and the sunshine on your shoulders.
You said that you had spent more time in prison than out, and that prison was the only life that you understood.
You liked the routines and the accessibility of food, but you hated the lack of privacy.
You called prison “timeless time” – a place where every minute lasted an eternity.
How do I describe what it was like for you to be incarcerated?
Do I tell them about that time you told me that you must be an animal because you keep getting locked up like one?
Do I tell them that you still had access to all your drugs of choice?
Do I tell them how you had a greater sense of community with your fellow inmates than you do on the outside?
Do I tell them that if you don’t end up dead first, you’ll be back inside those concrete walls?
Do I tell them that this system isn’t working – that it’s failing you and so many others?
I didn’t want to write this poem for you. I didn’t want to put words in your mouth. But most of all, I didn’t want to face the reality that you are either back in prison or that you are dead, and I’ll never know whatever became of you, one more person stuck in an unjust justice system.
I wonder if in your dreams you fly free with the wind in your face.
I want to picture you like that
Twirling and laughing with your hands stretched wide, calling your children to you
Years of sorrow and hardship melting in the drizzle of spring rain.
I wrote this poem for you at last.
Is this your image? If so, let me know so that I may credit you.
This work, “For Jane” by Beth Murch, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.